April 25, 2006

Ramped up: Possible closure of Third Street exit invokes terms like ‘aesthetics’ and ‘functionality’

It’s quickly becoming the chorus to America’s drive-time soundtrack: Gas prices went up again today. The most recent jumps occurred because, as of last week, a barrel of oil topped $75. Some analysts predict that by summer’s end we’ll pay around $4 for a gallon of gas, not just on the coasts but in the Midwest, too. Clearly this is a problem that’s not going away.Around the same time last week, the group SustainLane, a San Francisco-based organization concerned with sustainability issues, released a study documenting how prepared the nation’s 50 largest cities are for an oil crisis, as defined by gas prices at $3 to $8 a gallon on average. The ranking criteria included data on how citizens commute to work, regional public transportation ridership, sprawl, traffic congestion, local food (farmers markets and community gardens), and finally, the availability of wireless networks. Louisville ranked 49th, behind only Oklahoma City, on the “we’re screwed” meter of city longevity. It’s by no means an end-all study; that said, this is not just a bunch of hippies crowing about land-use issues.Also from the future-of-our-city beat comes a new decision on the Ohio River Bridges Project. It was spread across the front page of The Courier-Journal’s April 18 edition under the headline, “Third Street ramp might be eliminated,” although the story shared little context for the actual event that was being reported.Basically, the Third Street Ramp will be removed and the span of highway over Waterfront Park’s Great Lawn will be narrowed — not from what it is now (153 feet), but what it was going to be when rebuilt (318 feet). Supporters say it will decrease impact on the park by putting less concrete above it, and likewise improve functionality for Spaghetti Junction with a new exit to the east. Tyler Allen, one of the main proponents of the “8664” plan to remove a portion of I-64 from the downtown riverfront, said the planners have adopted — perhaps unwittingly — the very logic his plan is pushing: sacrificing functionality for urban aesthetic. Without the Third Street ramp, he said, there’s only one more step to 86-ing I-64: the Ninth Street ramp. Among other options still under consideration before any ground is broken on the Kennedy Interchange portion of the Project  — the term Spaghetti Junction, of course, is an oft-used moniker describing the total mess of interconnecting highway systems — the idea of removing that ramp has been around for at least six months. It was one of six “feasible” options presented to the public in October 2005, according to Kristen Jordan of Doe Anderson, the Louisville public relations firm that’s handling PR for the Project. She said the public overwhelmingly favored the option last year, as did the Waterfront Development Corporation and Metro Government.In fact, since Project studies began in 1998, there has been in existence the Waterfront Impact Reduction Study, a fluid and fairly self-explanatory thing to ensure the new bridge and Spaghetti Junction meet the feng shui of Waterfront Park. That’s the “context-sensitive design” term consistently invoked in these discussions; some fundamental elements, according to the Project’s Web site (www.kyinbridges.com), include: “well-defined, attractive gateways into the community; landscaping and grading intended to enhance driving and pedestrian experience; clean, elegant and well-proportioned superstructures, piers and wall structures; an attractive, uncluttered environment under the viaduct for pedestrians and bicyclists; and use of uniform, lightly colored elements, such as railings, light poles and sign supports.”David Karem is president of Waterfront Development Corporation, which oversees the 85-acre Waterfront Park. He said the WDC board has instructed its staff to “aggressively pursue” minimizing risk to the park.The WDC has three goals pertaining to the new Spaghetti Junction: get it narrowed; get it elevated to allow more sunlight onto the Great Lawn; and reduce the number of supporting piers in the park.“Some of the changes are a direct response to communication with us,” Karem said. He also said he’s heard an inordinate amount of feedback from citizens concerned about protecting the park from the highway.“I’ve been somewhat pleasantly surprised about the amount of discussion that has been generated by , and the direct feedback to us as to what’s the impact,” Karem said. The park draws an estimated 1.5 million visitors a year. Nearly every major player in the Project — Mayor Abramson, U.S. Rep. Anne Northup, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet — has supported considering alternatives to the original plan in this respect, Karem said. The latest option — closing the Third Street ramp — seems to assuage WDC’s apprehension on at least two fronts. The highway will be raised 8 to 10 feet from where it is now. No Third Street ramp — which delivers westbound I-64 traffic into downtown — means less canopy overtop the park when you’re playing with your kids there in 2020. It also means the span will be narrowed over the middle of the Great Lawn from the planned 318 feet to 225 (curiously, The Courier-Journal listed that distance in yards, although it has previously used feet).“The cabinet takes its charge very seriously to try to minimize impact on the park and the Great Lawn,” said Bart Bryant, the state transportation department’s acting Project manager. The issue of piers is still unclear, however. The C-J story inferred — through a paraphrase of Karem’s words — that it might be possible to have almost no piers on the Great Lawn. Bryant said that’s not the case, although they’re trying to use as few as possible.This option saves about $24 million. The cost of rebuilding Spaghetti Junction is roughly 44 percent of the $2.5 billion overall cost of the Project. During peak hours — morning and evening rush — the Third Street ramp carries 2,225 and 600 cars, respectively, according to figures provided by Doe Anderson that are based on both city traffic counts and the Project’s own. The “No Third Street Ramp” option calls for a new exit east of the park at River Road. Additionally, a feasibility study determined that a Mellwood/Story Avenue interchange can work; the next step is for the bi-state Project team to decide whether to study the option further. All of this amounts to the company line, that removing the Third Street ramp will actually create more on-off options.Chad Carlton, spokesman for the Mayor, said it makes Spaghetti Junction safer, which has been the point all along. Currently there is one accident per day on the interchange, on average.The most interesting aspect of this debate, however, may be neither design nor functionality, but the flexibility in the current plans — some changes can be made without risking the outright loss of federal dollars. Jordan said the Project will submit this and possibly other modifications to the plan for federal approval sometime later this year. Bryant said the final design is still a couple years down the road.In addition, both the apparent logic behind the decision and the new exit it proposes relate to the concept of 8664. Allen calls it the sacrifice of functionality for urban aesthetic. Of course, not everyone agrees on that.Allen is the wired young businessman who, along with J.C. Stites, developed and touts his 8664 plan to remove I-64 from the riverfront, between the current Spaghetti Junction and West 16th Street. He shows up at offices and parties around the city with a clutch of huge maps slung over his shoulders, spreading them out on floors and conference tables, pretty much wherever they’ll fit. He’s given the Mayor and his wife the presentation, the latter on their front lawn. He gave it to former C-J publisher Ed Manassah, who basically called him crazy. He has never given it to the C-J’s editorial board, which has railed against the plan in at least three staff editorials.The 8664 theory says removing a span of I-64 would reconnect downtown Louisville to both the Ohio River and Waterfront Park, a catalyst for downtown revitalization. (According to an Economic Impact report by WDC released last winter, the $100-million-plus park has generated $350 million in downtown investment and another $50 million in planned real estate and commercial developments.) Additionally, it is generally accepted (and obvious) that highways are meant to send people around cities, not through them. Forcing inter-Louisville commuters to interact with downtown through surface roads, Allen contends, will encourage further economic growth. He said that without the exit at Third Street, that part of I-64 becomes one long Ninth Street ramp, essentially supporting his point that moving traffic into downtown further east will actually work.“It is interesting, and it’s also good to know, that there is room to make changes within the current process,” Allen said. “It’s interesting also to note that they’ve moved by far the busier of the two exits back to where we would suggest moving something and there has been no cry of gridlock from the engineers.” Bryant said there will be no additional gridlock. He also said Project officials are listening to everyone — including Allen — for suggestions. Jordan said a study was completed in 1999 that assessed an idea similar to Allen’s, and it was determined unfeasible. She said the study exists but is out of print; thus, LEO has been unable to get a copy of it at this point, although others along with Jordan say it did exist at one time.Ultimately, the question may be one of sustainability, and what kind of city Louisville wants to be: one that rides independent transportation to its end, or one that has the foresight to see a problem brewing. Here, it’s become a chicken-or-egg debate: The government says it’s up to the people. The people are waiting on the government. Carlton, from the Mayor’s office, said the majority of the community has not decided to divorce itself from cars, and until that happens, the city will continue with projects that meet those needs. “The question is, at what point does the cost of owning and using your personal vehicle become great enough that people are willing to curtail or give up that use in numbers sufficient to support major investments in mass transit systems,” he said. David Coyte, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Regional Transportation, said it’s been a failure of leadership by the Abramson administration by not leading Louisville into an age of mass transit. “What is the advantage of building this very expensive interstate infrastructure, these bridges, when all the data that was used to justify them assumed that oil would stay below $20 a barrel?” he said. “This is completely bogus. To pretend that everybody’s going to be able to afford high-efficiency vehicles, that’s just even crazier.” Contact the writer at sgeorge@leoweekly.com